Grant Heslov first met George Clooney in acting class and the two have been collaborating ever since. The two formed Smokehouse Pictures, and have ushered in Clooney’s directorial career with Good Night and Good Luck, right up to the superstar’s latest, The Monuments Men. They also picked up an Oscar for Best Picture last year as producers of Argo.
We caught up with Heslov for an exclusive interview to talk about The Monuments Men and what it is about the magic of collaborating with Clooney that has been so inspiring and fruitful.
As teased in The Monuments Men trailer, the film stars Clooney, along with Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jean Dujardin as members of the real life World War II troupe who went behind enemy lines to secure the hundreds of thousands of priceless pieces of art and culture that the Nazis had stolen and were threatening to destroy if they were defeated. Heslov even dished how he got to appear in the movie!
Movie Fanatic: As someone who is a true appreciator of film, are you surprised that we’re still discovering unseen World War II stories like that shown in The Monuments Men?
Grant Heslov: I guess I am surprised. I was surprised to stumble on this story. I didn’t know there were any stories about World War II that I didn’t know -- any big stories. That’s what was so attractive about this story.
Movie Fanatic: How did you first hear about it?
Grant Heslov: I was in an airport and I saw the book. I picked it up and thought it sounded really interesting. I couldn’t put it down. The rest is history.
Movie Fanatic: I love that you were able to play a little part on the film…
Grant Heslov: That was not planned.
Movie Fanatic: How did that come about?
Grant Heslov: The guy who was going to play that role, his wife got sick and he couldn’t leave. He was a British guy and we were shooting in Berlin at the time. I pinched hit.
Movie Fanatic: Well, you pinch hit quite well, especially in such an emotionally powerful scene playing a war medic with people dying.
Grant Heslov: That whole sequence is one of my favorites.
Movie Fanatic: Is it hard to pick a favorite part of a movie when you’re so involved in it?
Grant Heslov: No. When you watch a film as many times as we watch the film, there’s little beats. There are a couple of Matt (Damon) moments that I love like when the kid asks him what’s in the barrel and he says, “It’s teeth.” Just the way he says that. I love the scene with Bill (Murray) and Bob (Balaban) and the kid… the John Wayne scene. I love the scene, another Bill and Bob scene, in the cottage when they discover the guy had all that art work.
Movie Fanatic: You have mentioned that you and George wrote these characters with the people who took the roles in mind. Is that always how you guys write? Was The Monuments Men cast already in your head?
Grant Heslov: We did that with Good Night and Good Luck. We wrote it with David Strathairn in mind. If there’s someone we think is right while we’re writing it, we talk about that. It helps.
Movie Fanatic: And when you get the cast together, it an interesting thing to see something you created -- even with that person in mind -- embody that. Of all the members of the cast, was there one that maybe surprised you?
Grant Heslov: Everybody, to some extent, does that. You write a character and it’s on the page, until the actor makes those choices and they always invariably bring choices that you never thought about. That’s what I love about the collaborate nature of making film. It takes all these different parts.
Movie Fanatic: Writing screenplays is more often than not a solitary endeavor. What is it about writing with George that really works for you?
Grant Heslov: I don’t like writing [laughs]. It’s not that I don’t like writing, writing alone is very hard for me. George is better at us getting something out. If it was just me, I would write, and just keep writing and never get anywhere. With George, he forces us to get the screenplay out. I like the collaboration and camaraderie, it’s more fun.
Movie Fanatic: When the person you’re writing with will also be directing the picture, like George and The Monuments Men, how does that affect the process?
Grant Heslov: For us, it’s great. We write the screenplay exactly how we see it. We have to then go back and add description and things like that. We know what we want to do. A screenplay is really the roadmap for everybody. You want to make sure everybody knows what your intentions are. Like, the scene with Bill Murray in the shower… we wrote it that way. A lot of that comes from George’s director vision.
Movie Fanatic: With millions of pieces of art and sculpture that went missing by the Nazis, how did you zero in your story on Ghent and the Madonna and Child?
Grant Heslov: Those are the two most important pieces. For us, those were the ones to focus on. Also, it worked into the way we wanted to tell the story. Those two pieces of art had the most interesting stories too.
Movie Fanatic: You guys did a masterful job at telling, through your words, why art and culture are so important. Is that what you hope audiences take away the most besides an entertaining two hours?
Grant Heslov: I just hope they’re entertained. That’s the goal. That would be great if it also caused people to say, “Should they have done that. Should those guys have died? What price do art and culture have?” I would love for it to raise all those questions. Absolutely, that was the goal from the beginning.
In the mood for another all-star World War II tale? Why not watch Inglourious Basterds online!